Sweet firms’ links to nutrition studies probed

FUNDING links between public health scientists and companies that make sugary products have been investigated by a medical journal.

Coca-Cola: Among firms involved. Picture: TSPL
Coca-Cola: Among firms involved. Picture: TSPL
Coca-Cola: Among firms involved. Picture: TSPL

The research by the British Medical Journal showed that public health scientists and a government committee working on nutritional advice receive funding from companies whose products are widely held to be responsible for the obesity crisis.

Experts say the findings raise important questions about the “potential for bias” and “conflict of interest” among public health experts as Britain faces a growing obesity epidemic.

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Recipients of research funding from sugar and other related industries include members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and researchers working for the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit (HNR).

HNR scientists have received research funding and funding in kind from companies including Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, Sainsbury’s, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Weight Watchers International and others.

As a former HNR researcher, Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at Oxford University and chair of the government’s Responsibility Deal Food Network, received support for her work from Coca-Cola, Sainsbury’s, Cereal Partners and Rank Hovis McDougall, among others.

The BMJ research shows that between 2008 and 2010, Coca-Cola donated £194,000 to one research study on which Prof Jebb was the principal investigator.

Listed as sole or co-principal investigator on ten industry-supported research projects between 2004 and 2015, Prof Jebb attracted funding worth £1.37 million to the HNR unit.

Some of the companies that supported her work at HNR, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, are now members of the Responsibility Deal, which she chairs.

Prof Jebb told the BMJ that all of her research was analysed and reported independently of industry. She said: “Everything I do, whether in my research or as chair of the Responsibility Deal, is to try to improve public health.”

Research by members of the SACN has been supported by companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Mars and Nestlé, according to the BMJ report.

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An analysis of the annual declarations of interest by SACN members shows that between 2001 and 2012 there was an
average of 45 declarations each year involving companies from the food, drinks and pharmaceutical industries.

Of the 40 scientists affiliated with SACN between 2001 and 2012, only 13 have had no interests to declare.

David Stuckler, of Oxford University, said the engagement of companies such as Coca-Cola with the work of public health organisations “falls into the 
category of efforts to crowd out public regulation, to try to weaken public health by working with it”.